Councilmember Okamoto left office on January 1, 2016.
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Rent Control is Not the Answer (Just Look at SF)

July 28th, 2015

Originally posted at The Seattle Times.

Rent control is not the answer to Seattle’s housing crisis. But as housing demand outpaces housing supply, renters are bearing the resulting brunt of rent increases. Understandably, for renters who want to halt these rising costs, rent control sounds like an appealing idea.

Some politicians are seizing upon the heated emotions of tenants to build support for their political aspiration. Who wouldn’t like to have their rent stabilized?

But rent control is a pipe dream. It can’t happen anytime soon, if at all, and it runs counter to creating affordable, quality housing.

The lure of rent control is the argument that it would make housing more affordable and would prevent rent hikes. The only seeming downside would be a revenue loss for landlords, who are perceived as “1 percenters,” and for wealthy corporations. But according to the Rental Housing Association, around 87 percent of landlords own fewer than 10 units — of those landlords, the vast majority actually own four units or fewer. In other words, a blow to the small-sized landlord is a blow to Seattle’s economy.

In the long run, Seattle needs to tackle a much bigger issue: the lack of housing. It’s the root of the housing affordability problem and can be boiled down to this: when supply is limited, demand goes up and higher rents follow. With an increased supply, demand and rents decrease. Logically, the solution then is to increase housing supply.

This is where we should be expending our energy — creating affordable housing units, not chasing an unreachable dream that diminishes both housing supply and quality.

When rent is controlled, landlords pull in less income and have less incentive to maintain their units. Properties leave the housing market as they fall into disrepair and are abandoned. New development ceases as developers find more attractive investments outside the housing market or in other cities that offer a better return. Housing supply dwindles and can’t meet demand, leaving a city with a housing crisis worse than the one Seattle already has.

Consider cautionary tales like New York City and San Francisco. In New York City, any apartment seeker can attest to the nightmare of finding an apartment, much less an affordable apartment. The city has been combating its housing shortage for decades as a result of its rent regulations and has been trying to move away from rent control, deregulating more than 231,000 units in the last 30 years.

San Francisco is also combating a housing shortage. To make matters worse, rent regulations there don’t even help the intended population. The city’s last study from 2000 found that one-fourth of households in rent-controlled apartments earned more than $100,000 a year.

With Seattle’s fast-growing population and housing demand igniting the debate around housing affordability, proponents of rent control are pressing the City Council to take a stance on the issue. The real power, though, lies with the state Legislature.

Washington banned rent regulation in 1981. By law, cities cannot enact rent-control legislation. So, even if Seattle were in favor of the measure, the state Legislature would have to come on board.

That is a high hurdle — one that won’t be cleared.

Since moving the needle in the Legislature requires a great deal of effort, the common-sense approach is to prioritize the issues on the state legislative agenda that have both a good chance of passing in the Legislature and working in the real world.

Regardless of whether rent control is good policy (it’s not), we shouldn’t spin our wheels in the Legislature when we have several other tasks and requests that have greater momentum and higher priorities.

In any case, let’s learn from other cities that have done the legwork for us. Rent control not only fails to address the housing affordability crisis, it exacerbates the issue in the long term.


Data: It’s Sexier than You Think

July 27th, 2015

Data has a story to tell.  In Seattle, that story is about equity – about communities struggling to get an education, to be healthy, to get jobs.  The story goes something like this.  Only about half of Samoan, Native American, Latino and African American students graduate from Seattle Public Schools.  Obesity is at least twice as high among high school students of color as compared to white high school students.  1 in 3 African Americans live below the poverty line, as do 1 in 4 Latinos.  And that’s just the abridged version.

Data collection is the first step to achieving equity in our communities.  Data shows the City where to target its resources, and it’s a tool to build good policies.  That’s why it’s vital for the City to invest in data collection and analysis.

Data disaggregation plays a key role in this investment.  Seattle is home to one of the most diverse zip codes in the country, but not every community is visible to its government.  For example, the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community’s needs are masked by the “model minority myth” – the idea that AAPIs are self-sufficient, well-educated, and upwardly mobile.  In reality, such generalizations hide the real differences that exist in socioeconomic status, educational attainment, health, and other areas.

Aggregated data from the American Community Survey shows that only 13% of Asian American adults in Washington lack a high school diploma, but disaggregated data shows that over 30% of Cambodian and Vietnamese adults lack a high school diploma.  And aggregated data shows that 9% of Asian American families in Washington live in poverty, though disaggregated data shows that more than 15% of Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Samoan families live in poverty.  Similar patterns can be seen in health, employment, and homeownership data.

The issue is most evident in immigrant and refugee communities.  For instance, the Arab, Middle Eastern, and Eastern European groups are lumped into the “Caucasian” category.  East Africans are bundled into the “African American” category.

Without data that’s broken out to show these communities of need, how will we help kids finish high school and lift families out of poverty in Seattle?

These groupings hide the real needs of these communities.  In a time when they City is striving to be outcome-oriented and results-driven, it’s more important than ever that we target our resources to communities who need it the most.

Last week, I convened an informal data task force made up of 10 of the brightest data managers from departments around the City. The group brainstormed ideas to improve the City’s data collection and disaggregation practices, and I plan to use my limited time on Council to lay the foundation for these improvements.


Councilmembers Issue Statements on Death of Donnie Chin

July 23rd, 2015

SEATTLE – Council President Tim Burgess, Councilmember Bruce Harrell and Councilmember John Okamoto issued the following statements in response to the tragic death of Donnie Chin early this morning:

Council President Tim Burgess“The shooting of Donnie Chin is a shocking and profound loss to the people of the Chinatown-International District and the entire Seattle community. For decades, Donnie was a true servant to the people, graciously and humbly caring for visitors and residents of his neighborhood. He loved his neighbors deeply. He was passionate in his service. He was ‘on duty’ 24/7, always responding with a helping hand. Donnie’s life of love will always be stronger than the senseless act of violence that cut it short. The thoughts and prayers of Donnie’s friends in city government are with his family and friends in this incredibly difficult time.”

Councilmember Bruce Harrell: “I am saddened and outraged by the shooting death of Donnie Chin earlier this morning. Donnie spent a lifetime helping people, saving countless lives over decades of service as founder and director of the Chinatown-International District Emergency Center. This city has a lost a man with a great heart and a lifelong commitment to the service of others.  My thoughts and prayers are with Donnie’s family and all those who loved him.”

Councilmember John Okamoto“Donnie Chin was a beloved community member who kept the International District safe at great cost to himself.  This is a man who – just weeks ago – was the first responder to administer aid to my ailing father.  He is a hero and a friend, and I will miss him dearly.”

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HALA: What’s the Plan?

July 20th, 2015

The first meeting of the Select Committee on Housing Affordability, of which I am vice-chair, will be today, Monday, July 20, where the Council will receive a briefing on the entire Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) suite of recommendations. Once the Council has been briefed, we’ll create a work plan and schedule to prioritize the various recommendations.

My committee (CHAHSER) will meet in parallel with the Select Committee on Housing Affordability, and we will consider legislation that also fits into the housing affordability quilt.  Just prior to the HALA report release, CHAHSER received legislation on rent control and tenant protection.  I held this legislation in order to view it in the context of the HALA recommendations, and I will be scheduling these pieces – as well as the Multifamily Tax Exemption reauthorization (with potential policy changes) – in the August/September timeframe.

You can sign up HERE to receive the agendas for these meetings via email.

Around Town Last Week

July 20th, 2015

Last week I had the opportunity to see the economic resiliency of the waterfront up close and check out the progress on the Seawall project, the newly renovated Pier 54 and Ivar’s Acres of Clams, and the Seattle Aquarium expansion plan.  I also had a chance to talk shop with a vibrant group of civically engaged seniors, join a discussion on housing equity, and meet the youth who will run Seattle one day.

Housing for All

I joined local leaders as they discussed why they support affordable housing linkage fees as a strong tool to address Seattle’s affordable needs. It’s better for society, the environment, and families if people can afford to live near their work. Inclusionary housing is a strong step toward helping Seattle achieve this vision, and everyone – including developers – shares in the responsibility in creating equity in housing.

Youth: They’ll Run the City Soon

UntitledThe Mayor announced the Youth Employment Initiative, which has created nearly 2,000 positions for young people across the city. In addition to summer jobs through Seattle Parks and other City agencies, private-sector financial support has led to twice as many opportunities for Seattle youth as last year.  I can think of no better way for the private sector to invest in our city than by embracing our youth.  Employers participating in the Mayor’s initiative are developing talent that will drive our economic future.

A Glimpse of the New Waterfront

The Seawall Project construction started along Seattle’s waterfront in 2013 to protect critical infrastructure and utilities while enhancing the habitat through this area. The new seawall will last more than 75 years and stand up to seismic activity.

Most importantly, the Seawall Project has served as the foundation for projects transforming Seattle’s future waterfront.  The seawall has been completed in the area adjacent to Waterfront Park, and excavation between Madison Street and Yesler Way continues this week.Seawall

Impressively, this very complex project is on schedule to complete in 2016.

In the meantime, many businesses that closed during seawall construction have now reopened for business just in time for the summer and tourist season.  Some – like the businesses on Pier 54 – took advantage of the nine-month closure to remodel.  After its facelift, Ivar’s Acres of Clams was up and running with a touch of the old and new.  Pieces of history lined the walls of Ivar’s, while an improved building design opened up new waterfront views. This facelift will certainly draw more visitors and set the stage to attract more businesses back to the waterfront.

A few blocks down at Pier 59, the Seattle Aquarium was in the throes of its expansion planning that anticipates new exhibits and new, exciting ways for visitors to interact with the Aquarium.  The Aquarium is an integral part of the waterfront project, and its expansion will greatly contribute to the economic development of the area.

SE Seattle Seniors Were in the House!

As some of you may already know, seniors are one of my top priorities.  I care about what happens to seniors.  I care that seniors have a full, vibrant life as they age, and I credit my parents as the driving force behind that.  My dad helped start a non-profit to provide a better quality of life to elder members of our community and their families.  My parents now live in the senior center that my dad helped create. It’s this history that drives me to work for the senior community in Seattle.

Senior centerThursday, I had lunch with the seniors at the SE Seattle Senior Center for their monthly birthday celebration.  The event was a great success, complete with bright lights, colors, balloons, and smiling faces.  Councilmember Harrell joined me, and we made our way around to each of the 52 seniors, chatting about issues of concerns ranging from affordable housing to rent control to bicycle lanes in the south end of our city.

This is the first of many stops I’ll make to senior centers during my time on the council.  Call my office at (206) 684-8802 to find out where I’ll be next. I hope to see you at my next senior center stop!

Council Conversation

July 16th, 2015

Council Conversations 1Josephine Cheng chatted with me at the Wing Luke Museum about what I plan to accomplish during my short tenure as a Councilmember on some of the city’s hottest issues like affordable housing, data disaggregation, transportation and more. Catch up with us HERE.

Homelessness: Rare, Brief, and One-time

June 29th, 2015

More than 10,000 people experience homelessness in this region on any given night.  For more than a decade, Seattle has been working with King County’s Committee to End Homelessness (CEH) to house these people, yet each year the number of unsheltered continues to grow.

Part of this can be attributed to the lack of housing affordability in Seattle.  A recent study highlighting key predictive factors to homelessness found that an increase in rent of $100 correlates with a 15% increase in metropolitan homelessness. Additionally, persistent disparities related to race, health, education outcomes, and the criminal justice system speak to broader underlying societal challenges that need to be confronted.

In the last Committee on Housing Affordability, Human Services, and Economic Resilience meeting, Seattle’s Human Services Department (HSD) stepped to the plate to discuss the mushrooming problem.

In 2014, HSD invested over $40 million to end homelessness with roughly half going towards shelters, transitional housing, and housing stability services.  Relatively speaking, much less was spent on “up-stream” prevention and on permanent supportive housing or rapid rehousing efforts, which have more long-term effects on homelessness than intervention models.

In its analysis, HSD recommended that the City shift course in two major ways.  First, the City should move towards an evidence-based practice, where funding decisions are made based on an objective evaluation of all services, comparison of outcomes, and alignment with longer term goals.  Second, the City should focus new resources primarily on effective prevention and diversion services.

In a letter to the CEH governing board, I relayed the City’s position along with our support of CEH’s new strategic plan.  The governing board will vote to adopt the plan tomorrow, and CEH will brief the Council once the plan is adopted so that we may continue to align our strategies to make homelessness in the region rare, brief, and one-time.

Igniting Young Minds

June 26th, 2015

Congratulations to the four exceptional Seattle students selected at the Associated of Washington Cities (AWC), Center for Quality Communities scholarship.  Today, at the AWC conference in Wenatchee, WA, I was impressed by these young leaders who reminded me of possibility and gave me a glimpse into a future of heightened civic engagement.

The scholarships constitute a great example of a donor-driven program, and I’m thrilled that Seattle was able contribute leftover funding from the National League of Cities conference to support the scholarships for the four Seattle students:

Dagmawit Kemal plans to focus her education and career on political science and broadcast journalism.

Over the past year, she was actively involved with Washington Bus, a non-profit organization that gets youth civically engaged.  When Proposition 1 was put on the ballot in King County, stopping bus cuts, Dagmawit and others got involved, making calls encouraging young voters to vote.

Olesya Mironchuk strives to become a cardiologist because of the dual nature of medicine: human compassion and scientific practices. Olesya has volunteered over 280 hours at hospitals, seeing the impact of mental illness and in the community and limited low-cost walk-in clinics in Seattle. This led her to apply and go through the rigorous application process to become a member of the Seattle Foundation’s Youth Grantmaking Board.

Tin Vo plans to become an electrical engineer. Tin helps teach at the Vietnamese Language & Cultural School, were he once was a student himself. As a young child, he says his life was enriched and enhanced by people who dedicated their time to grounding and teaching him in his culture.

Jalen Wright also wants to become an engineer.  In his sophomore year, he was offered a job as a Student Advisor with Rainier Scholars, a non-profit organization that helps low-income minority children go to and graduate from college. Rainier Scholars transforms children into leaders by guiding them through an extremely rigorous 14-month academic enrichment program. Jalen had been through the program himself, but as an advisor, he helped mold 11 advisees one summer.

I was honored to be part of the awards program and recognizing these Seattle students for making a difference and their communities.

State, Pass a Budget!

June 24th, 2015

In the absence of a budget agreement, the State is on the verge of a shutdown will halt services to over 28,000 individuals throughout the county – including 10,000 Seattle residents – who receive State-funded family caregiver support, congregate and home-delivered meals, transportation and a host of other services. In addition, 11,000 elderly and individuals with disabilities are at risk of losing services that allow them to remain safely in their homes.

Along with service disruptions, over 100 staff members at Seattle’s Human Services Department (HSD) will face layoffs. HSD will also be forced to delay University District Food Bank improvements and some park department and affordable housing projects.

Despite its best efforts to mitigate these impacts, HSD will not be able to effectively operate these programs without a finalized state budget.

Today, I urged the State to finalize a biennial budget by July 1. A shutdown will have very serious consequences for our most vulnerable communities in Seattle and King County, and we must ensure they do not experience a break in services that puts their safety at risk.

Density is Key in Lowrise Code Deliberation

June 16th, 2015

I recently wrote about Seattle’s growing pains and the many moving parts that are part of the affordable housing machine.  One of these parts – land use – is so closely related to housing affordability, you might say they march in lockstep.

Today, the Planning, Land Use, and Sustainability Committee will deliberate on a set of proposed amendments to Lowrise legislation.  Lowrise zones are areas where smaller-scale multi-family buildings reside.

Stakeholders have spoken up on both sides of the issue.  On one hand, design and development should be done with an eye to its surrounding environment, which is exactly why zoning exists.  For example, the code would not support building a skyscraper in a neighborhood full of Craftsman houses.

On the other hand, Seattle is experiencing an affordable housing crisis.  As more housing is built to accommodate Seattle’s growing population, we have to consider where to put this housing.  Seattle’s Regional Comprehensive Plan directs growth to existing urban centers, which reduces the public cost and protects natural environment.  In other words, we have to think about making our neighborhoods denser.

The proposed amendments to the Lowrise code attempt to address these two main concepts.  As the Council weighs the various amendments tomorrow, I will be advocating for a balanced approach that leans toward creating more density and better livability in our neighborhoods.